Mako Iwamatsu

Aaron Gerow gerowaaron
Mon Jul 24 05:12:30 EDT 2006

The news services report that the Japanese-American actor, Mako 
Iwamatsu (also known as Mako, though his real name is Iwamatsu Makoto), 
died on the 21st at the age of 72. Mako was nominated for an Oscar for 
The Sand Pebbles in 1966, and appeared in numerous films and TV shows, 
most recently Memoirs of a Geisha and Pearl Harbor. He also appeared in 
Japanese productions as well, including two roles quite memorable for 
me: the guide in Miike Takashi's Bird People of China, and Hideyoshi (a 
brilliant casting move!) in Shinoda's Owls's Castle.

I personally have been interested in Mako not only for his work as an 
actor, but also for his life. He was born in Kobe in 1933, the son of 
the artist Iwamatsu Jun. Iwamatsu and his wife Tomoe were both leftist 
artists who suffered prison sentences in the 1930s. They were able to 
visit the United States in 1939, but had to leave their son with his 
grandparents. The couple studied at the Art Students' League in New 
York until the war broke out. Jun joined the US Army and was a central 
figure in US propaganda efforts against Japan, drawing leaflets urging 
Japanese soldiers to surrender and not die. Concerned with the racist 
tone of American opposition to Japan, he also published the book The 
New Sun in 1943 under the pseudonym Taro Yashima (used out of fear that 
the Japanese government may take revenge on his family in Japan), in 
which he tried to express the Japanese people's own desire for peace 
and freedom. As a reward for his services after the war, he and his 
family were granted permanent residence in the US by Congress. It was 
only at that time that he was able to return to Kobe to get his son. (I 
remember an interview in which Mako speaks of the shock of seeing his 
father arriving at the house in a US Army uniform, the uniform of the 
enemy. He also said that he was the first Japanese allowed to move to 
the US after the war.) The family settled in NYC and Jun, under the 
name Taro Yashima, embarked on a successful career as a writer of 
children's books, the most famous of which are Crow Boy, Umbrella, and 
Seashore Story, all of which were Caldecott Honor books (we have 
several of these at home--Crow Boy is especially good and is still in 
print). Several books featured Mako's sister Momo, who was born in the 
USA. Tomoe collaborated on several works under the pseudonym Mitsu 
Yashima. Naoko Shibusawa recently published a piece on Yashima in the 
Journal of Asian American Studies.

Mako's relations with his father were apparently not easy and he 
himself joined the US Army in the 1950s. After getting out, he joined 
the Pasedena Community Playhouse to study acting. He appeared a lot on 
TV and film, but also acted on stage, earning a Tony nomination for 
Pacific Overtures. He was also co-founder of the East-West Players 
theater company in LA. A versatile performer, he was a voice actor in 
many US cartoons, especially the Samurai Jack series.

Mako represented an interesting slice of 20th century history. I for 
one regret not being able to meet him and talk to him about it.

Aaron Gerow
Assistant Professor
Film Studies Program/East Asian Languages and Literatures
Yale University
53 Wall Street, Room 316
PO Box 208363
New Haven, CT 06520-8363
Phone: 1-203-432-7082
Fax: 1-203-432-6764
e-mail: aaron.gerow at

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